Malaysia should boost education through strengthened human rights: UN expert

20 February 2007

Malaysia should bolster its education system and human rights mechanisms simultaneously, a United Nations expert has said following extensive consultations in the country, which he praised for its efforts to provide “world-class” schooling.

The Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Muñoz Villalobos, visited Malaysia from 5 to 14 February, and attended 40 meetings in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and Kota Bharu, both in Peninsular Malaysia, and Kuching across the South China Sea on the island of Borneo. He held consultations with over 150 people, ranging from Government officials, teachers, students, parents, trade union representatives to civil society groups.

Upon concluding his official visit, Mr. Villalobos pointed out that there is a disparity between the Government’s level of investment in education and the institutionalization of human rights.

He praised Malaysia’s stated target of creating a “world class” education system, but said that there is a corresponding need to “need to strengthen educational institutions which will permit the mainstreaming of human rights in all aspects of national life.”

To this end, the Special Rapporteur recommended that Malaysia ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), two UN treaties based on the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mr. Villalobos also said the Government should adjust its laws pertaining to education to conform to international standards. He expressed concern that a law exists which curtails university students’ right to freedom of association and expression, among other civil and political rights, and asserted that this law should be revoked.

The expert was informed by students and teachers that corporal punishment in schools is a common practice. As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which expressly bans the measure in schools, Malaysia must take stronger measures to eradiate the practice, he said.

Three groups, the Bumiputera, Chinese and Indians, comprise the Malaysian population, yet the groups do not have equal access to education. For example, according to several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), despite a surge in the Chinese population in the last few decades, they are serviced by proportionately fewer state schools.

The schoolchildren of the country’s indigenous populations such as the Iban community have encountered numerous roadblocks – including limited access to higher education and inferior schools – in their attempt to realize their right to education. To ameliorate this situation, Mr. Villalobos recommended the creation of a department within the Ministry of Education which would oversee the educational needs of indigenous peoples.

Despite almost reaching gender parity in school enrolment, he said that the Malaysia must enhance educational policies in regards to the rights of women through “affirmative action” which would in turn invigorate the labour market and economy as a whole. To reach this goal, he recommends that teachers be trained in gender studies and human rights.

A 2005 joint study by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that in recent years, the number of students in tertiary or higher education has almost tripled in Malaysia, thanks in large part to the 30 per cent boost in spending by the Government on education.

Citing the Malaysia’s diverse population as its greatest assets “to general good educational practices,” the Rapporteur stated his belief that the country “has the resources it needs to respond creatively and comprehensively to all the challenges it faces.”


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